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From This Day: 20 years later, pen pals become life partners

TAMPA — Of course, Kari Goetz's first email went to Crawford Long. They'd been corresponding the old-fashioned way — stamps and envelopes — since they were 17. Electronic mail speeded up their postal friendship; still 20 years passed before the pen pals met again in person.

Witty and irreverent observations, "high banter,'' Crawford said, kept their letters coming long after they met at a YMCA Youth in Government Conference on National Affairs in North Carolina in 1992. Crawford had driven 90 minutes from his home in Greenville, S.C. Kari took a 14-hour bus ride from Fort Myers.

Everyone departed with new ideas, educated opinions and an address directory. Kari and Crawford took home an indelible memory of him playing guitar and her singing along. From that brief encounter followed two decades as each other's closest confidant.

"We grew up with each other," Kari said, "just not together."

Occasionally they sent silly gifts. Sometimes the phone would ring. The mid 1990s brought email, followed by instant messages, texts, Facebook, Twitter and Skype.

Kari described nerve-wracking auditions during the five years she pursued an acting career in Los Angeles. Back in Florida, she directed marketing for the Tampa Chamber of Commerce, managed audience development at Straz Center for the Performing Arts and named herself Chief Squirrel at Jobsite, its resident theater.

When Crawford's dot.com dream didn't come true, the software developer regaled Kari with law school tribulations from the University of South Carolina. His New Year's Eve text greeting always arrived at midnight. But on Jan. 1, 2012, he added: Will this be the year we see each other?

"We'd better,'' replied Kari, ever the smart-aleck, "… the Mayans say the world is ending." A few days later, Crawford emailed his flight information.

"I've never been so nervous in my life," he said. "I've climbed dangerous cliffs, gone through traumatic health crises, but never been so unsure than getting on that airport tram."

"Worst case of stage fright in my life," injects Kari, leading lady of scores of plays.

First a hug. Five seconds later, a kiss. Thus began a year of constant travel between her home in Seminole Heights and his in Atlanta. How convenient that Kari was named director of marketing at Tampa International Airport in May 2012.

There was no formal engagement. "We just knew there would be a wedding some day," she said, just as they knew it would involve good friends and Carolina barbecue. Bibs would be provided; gifts would be politely discouraged.

Merging the stuff of two households was hard enough, not to mention blending pets — his cat and her two dogs and two cats. Instead, guests could donate to their matchmaker, the YMCA youth in government program, or Equality Florida, "so the next generation of Crawfords and Karis, Karis and Karis and Crawfords and Crawfords can meet," she said.

On April 20, they filled the Cedar House in Clearwater. Friends officiated — Kari's college pal, Broadway producer John Pinckard, and Crawford's YMCA mentor, Mary Bledsoe. Pinckard began with a reading from the movie The Princess Bride; Bledsoe followed with the Massachusetts Supreme Court's landmark decision, Goodridge v. the Boston Department of Public Health, allowing same-sex marriage. They high-fived and called for a coin toss to set the order of the vows.

Crawford went first, promising "to love, honor, respect and usually obey," followed by a pledge to "never give up childish things ... always try to make you laugh... and be proud to have such a remarkable, brilliant, funny, creative and strong woman as my wife."

Kari responded, "I always said that whoever married you would be the luckiest woman in the world. And... I was right."

Amy Scherzer can be reached at ascherzer@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3332.

French Fly Photography

Kari Goetz and Crawford Long, both 38, met in 1992 at a YMCA youth leadership conference and began 20 years of written correspondence and scattered phone calls, evolving to email, texts and Skype as technology advanced. When he suggested a visit in person last year, two decades as pen pals filled in for courtship. The couple married April 20, 2013, in Clearwater.

From This Day: 20 years later, pen pals become life partners 06/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 7, 2013 7:10pm]

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